What goes up must come down

Posted on 24 Jul 2013 by The Manufacturer

Enough damage has been done by Chinese lanterns falling to ground like stealthy incendiary bombs. Time for a ban says Huw Chandler, Engineering Leader at global insurer XL Group

The huge fire at a West Midlands plastics recycling plant last month sparked a host of fresh calls for Chinese or Sky Lanterns, as they are also known, to be banned.

Members of Parliament, fire chiefs, and the National Farmers’ Union have collectively urged the UK government to follow Spain’s lead and ban the lanterns.

The sale and use of lanterns has grown in popularity recently, it is estimated that some 200,000 are sold each year in the UK alone. However some celebrations have ended in tears; lanterns released at a 21st  birthday party in Oxfordshire in 2010 caused a huge fire in a barley field.

The lanterns do not only pose a threat to farmland: farming organisations have long complained that when the wire frames fall back to earth they can be chopped up into hay or silage when crops are harvested and fed to cattle. Several cows have died as a result of choking on small pieces of wire. Wildlife is also at risk, a view expressed by many wildlife campaigners on Twitter.  In 2011 dairy farmer and festival organizer, Michael Eavis, added his voice to the debate – banning the lanterns from the Glastonbury Festival.

And this is not simply a problem affecting the rural economy; in 2011 a lantern was also blamed for sparking a large fire at an industrial estate in Somerset igniting a tonne of paper and printer cartridges.

The cost of a lantern? Around £1 each

The cost of fire services response? Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service calculates their average response cost per incident is £2,797

The cost of reinstating a building? Potentially millions….

This latest fire in the West Midlands saw 200 firefighters attend, two of whom ended up in hospital.  The chief fire officer at the West Midlands Fire Service described the inferno as one of the largest fires his crew had experienced. With plumes of black smoke reaching 1,800m high, the intense blaze could be seen from 30 miles.

The scale of the fire led to one high street retailer announcing it plans to stop selling the lanterns. This will no doubt be welcome news to those who have been warning about the dangers posed by these lanterns, which in effect are potentially little incendiary bombs released and falling to the ground indiscriminately.

In 2011, the Chief Fire Officers Association released statistics on incidents caused as a result of the lanterns. 42 Fire and Rescue Services responded to the call for information (70%) of services. Out of those 42 services, 30 said they had had incidents/call outs caused by lanterns (71%).

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) was also commissioned to undertake a study, but it rejected calls for a ban, claiming there was only anecdotal evidence the lanterns posed a threat to farm animals. And a Defra spokesman reiterated its stance following this latest fire, saying it will not review its position.

From a fire safety and risk management perspective, a company/organization that has good housekeeping practices in place, i.e. outside facilities clear of waste and debris, may fair better if a lantern comes down on their land/facility. However the bottom line is this – what goes up must come down, and properties, fields and other assets will continue to go up in flames while these lanterns are being released into the night sky.